CIRCLE Report: Peer-to-Peer Works, Registration Choice, and Absentee Ballots

The October 2009 CIRCLE report has been released about college students and voting. Here are some of the findings:

  • Students can be diligent voters with high turnout, both by absentee ballot and in local voting.
  • Students who can vote in their home state or their college state are strongly influenced in that choice by the closeness of the presidential election.
  • Even in the internet era, in-person voter drives reach many students who would not otherwise vote.

The report was based on a peer-to-peer voter drive done at Northwestern University during the 2008 election. During this voting drive, campaigners encouraged students from Presidential swing states to register back home as opposed to in Illinois. Students contacted by the campaign chose to register back home and vote absentee instead of locally by an 8:1 ratio. Of the students that registered through the drive, 80% voted.

I have mixed feelings about encouraging students to vote absentee over locally. For most students, the political decisions that are going to have the greatest effect on their lives will be made at the state and local level in their college district. State legislatures decide university funding, and that in turn determines tuition increases. City ordinances can have a big effect on students. Back when I represented students at Arizona State a number of student-opposed measures were passed through the Tempe City Council.

Encouraging students to vote back home in a swing state makes sense to the Presidential campaign, but it has it’s cost in other political areas. I’m also concerned that this sends a message that the only really important election is the Presidential one every four years and discourages students from building the habit of voting locally and being an active and engaged part of the civic community.

The drive at Northwestern University, analyzed here, offered each student a choice of registering for local voting in Illinois (the college state) or for absentee voting in their home state. Absentee voting was encouraged for students from swing states. Students from non-swing states were mildly encouraged to vote in Illinois. Students from swing states showed a dramatic preference for absentee voting in their home state, over local voting in Illinois, by an 8:1 ratio. Even students from other non-swing states preferred absentee voting in their home state over local voting in Illinois by a 2:1 ratio.

What is troubling is that the students that were contacted that were not from swing states were only mildly encouraged to register locally. Once again this appears to be a situation where the campaign only cares about the Presidential election and ignores the importance of local races. While at the Presidential level it makes sense for people to vote in swing states, it doesn’t make sense to not strongly encourage students to register locally when neither state is highly contested.

On the bright side, the campaign showed that students are reliable voters when engaged by campaigns, most effectively through peer-to-peer contact. It also showed that absentee voting drives are possible and can be effective.

A troubling finding of the report is that absentee voting is error-prone:

16% of applicants for absentee voting were not enabled to vote. In 1/3 of these cases, an error was made by the applicant, and in 2/3 of the cases the error was made by county boards of elections. Most errors by applicants could be prevented by adding minor annotations to the application forms.

However, even with the errors the success rate of the campaign was extremely high.

There is a lot of good information in the report, as well as an evaluation of the methods used by the absentee voter drive campaign. It’s definitely a must read for people involved in organizing college students.

I’ll end with a question for the comments: what are your thoughts on where students should be encouraged to register and vote?